I LOVE THE SOUND of trains passing. Our car rocks gently to the side and there is a thrumming like a sudden pulse of drums or the the roar of a factory; air moving in invisible and violent ripples.
We’re about an hour south of Seoul. The cities we pass are cold, industrial. Pale gray apartment clusters tower above the brown landscape while in the distance pillars of steam ascend into azure oblivion. The rural patches in between are dotted by low brick shanties with tiled roofs and rows of greenhouses made with wire and plastic. Rolling into Daejeon Station, an old man in a newsboy cap and protective face mask waits with his bicycle next to the tracks. Where he will go after we pass is only a flicker of a thought as my eyes soak in the rushing landscape; my mind is like heavy paper slowly and longingly being dipped in watercolor.
With the exception of a weekend jaunt out to the east coast in November, my wife and I had not left the capital since we arrived in July — two days after our wedding. Planning an overdue escape to Japan was thrilling in itself; the sense of relief I felt as we pulled away on the KTX was like finishing the last day of seventh grade. I pushed any notion of having to make a return trip as far out of my mind as I could muster.
We arrived in the port city of Busan and quickly hopped aboard a blue bus driven by a round-faced thirty-something sporting aviator sun glasses whom we soon learned had the most boring route in the city: shuttling tourists the two mile stretch between the station and the international ferry terminal. Traveler convenience, at the price of a young man’s sanity.
The boat was smaller than we both expected. The cabin was clean but its air was permeated by a distinct sourness indicative of past bouts of seasickness. I took notice of the presence of safety belts warily. An explanation saying that the Beetle Ferry sometimes has to take evasive maneuvers to avoid sea creatures (the Kraken?) did little to settle the force of our combined anxieties.
As we made our way out of the harbor, an aging concrete neighborhood built up into a hillside caught my eye. Perhaps inspired by the surrounding waters, the outer walls of the buildings were painted various tints of sea-foam and aquamarine. I was struck by how Busan itself looked like a different country in many ways. It seemed older, rusting and weathered, but somehow more sturdy because of it. I imagined that a building here could crack or become encrusted in salt but that still it would stay — as opposed to in Seoul, where everything is eligible for “redevelopment.”
We floated into the port of Fukuoka just as the sun was sinking into the Tsushima Strait. I watched through the spattered windows, groggy from the Dramamine, as the last of rays of light turned the islands off the coast into silhouettes and left the sky blushing shades of deep purple and blue. I saw palm trees waving in the breeze and felt something like awe. They seemed so alien in the cold air that I knew was waiting outside.
Customs was gray and bleak, but friendly. While being finger-printed and photographed didn’t exactly say Yosoko! to me, the officials — women and men suited in royal blue — bowed graciously as we exited and set foot on their soil.
A boxy but polished black cab wheeled up to the curb in front of the terminal and as soon as I caught sight of the well-groomed driver sitting on the right side I felt a rush of giddiness. Having never been to England or any of the other nations around this great planet where people drive on the left, the novelty excited me — almost as much as the cab’s passenger door, which flung open automatically.
Inside the car was immaculate: an uncorrupted waft of air freshener and what looked liked large, crisp white doilies stretched tightly over the seats. “Konichiwa!” I offered as I threw my bag and myself inside, and our driver kindly returned the greeting. As Janice got in I fumbled for the hotel’s address, which I had printed in Japanese. But there was no need; as soon I said “Monterey La Soeur Hotel?” he nodded, without looking at the folded paper, and we sped off.
Early in the ride, I gathered that the cabbie was asking us where we were from. “America, United States deska?” Reflexively responding in the elongated vowel sounds that in Korean mean “affirmative” (Yeeehhh), I quickly readjusted to produce the sharper, more disciplined, “Hai! America-des!”
Against my parents’ fretful advice to respond to inquiries of nationality with the fib of being from the upper end of North America, I take a bit of pride in telling people I’m from the States — especially in Korea, where I speak the language. When I went to purchase Japan Rail passes before our trip at the Hanatour branch near my office, the woman behind the desk first guessed that I was from Europe, maybe France. The subtly shocked expression that bloomed on her face when I told her I was from “Miguk…Seattle,” was unexpectedly gratifying. I felt I’d made a chip, however slight, into the monolith of anti-American sentiment that has formed over the past eight years.
My first impressions of Fukuoka — indeed, of Japan as a whole — was that it was at ease with itself. Even from the cab I could feel a kind of effortless energy that was soft, calm. The crosswalks were crowded with businessmen, students, people on bikes and a smattering of expats; all heading out or making their way home to enjoy the Friday night just as anywhere else. But something about the way people walked and rode their single-speeds, in the manner they held their heads as they regarded the glow of the city around them, was entirely strange and wonderful to me.
Despite the view from our hotel room (or what many would describe as the anti-view — we looked into an office building where some lonely soul was eating instant noodles), the La Soeur was exactly what we needed: clean, quiet and in the center of town. We dropped our things wearily and set out for food.
The first meal in a new place is always hard. It should set the tone for the rest of the trip in terms of quality and price, and should neither be so extravagant nor so bizarre as to make your stomach think that this is what it should be expecting in the week ahead. Simply put, it should be local comfort food. After a couple whirls around the block and the onset of hunger shakes, that’s exactly what we found at a small vending-machine style joint serving udon and tempura and Kirin on tap. We ravaged our bowls of noodles in greedy mouthfuls and failed at attempts to savor the delicate taste of the fried vegetables and fish cakes, but we felt better in short order — if not completely satisfied, hunger-wise. I let the bubbles of my beer roll down my throat and soothe me, and shook off my exhaustion.
We meandered around the Tenjin shopping district in the chilly night air and further subdued our appetites with a snack from Mister Donut, an American chain that floundered Stateside but has flourished in Korea and Japan by satisfying their citizens’ penchant for cakey sweets. As we rounded the corner near the Solaria department store, we remarked somewhat jealously on the smooth edges of the city’s atmosphere.
Tenjin drew comparison’s to Seoul’s Myeongdong district but the differences in character could not have been more plain. Shoppers were still rushing to get where they were headed, yet no one was bumping into each other. This was certainly due in part to the lower volume of people, but I got a distinct feeling there was more to it — some agent of culture working beneath the surface that was absent in Korea. It was a feeling that Janice and I would experience throughout our trip.
We ended the night with our heads on sandbag pillows and television we couldn’t understand.